The curious case of the higher education crisis

I’m down in Cork to visit two of my Biotech students who are on their nine-month work placement in Eli Lilly. This will be my last of our so-called INTRA visits. I’ve also been to Medtronic in Galway, Abbott in Longford, Abbott in Sligo and Leo Pharma in Crumlin. So far, our students have been getting glowing reports.

So when somebody, or some organisation, makes a statement to the effect that our higher education system is “in crisis”, I’m a bit confused. The only evidence presented is that funding per student is declining and, more importantly for the crisis mongerers, our universities are dropping in the international rankings. The argument seems to be that we are close to a tipping point whereby the quality of our graduates is about to plunge to unacceptably low levels. However, one thing we know for sure is that no academic or president of any institution is ever going to admit that the tipping point has actually been passed because that would be career and institutional suicide. So the narrative will continue to be that we’re “in crisis” but we’re coping and our graduates are still wonderful.

For sure, the higher education system does face challenges but to see them as mainly funding-related is to miss a number of points. In fact, the key problem facing higher education is that it has been allowed to develop in a market-like way without any clear vision as to what exactly it is for. (The HEA may have played a significant role here.) In the not so distant past, the purpose of higher education was largely to educate a relatively small percentage of school-leavers to degree level – more on that in another blog. But now, higher education institutions are places not just of undergraduate education but places of mass undergraduate and postgraduate education, including a lot of education and training that was previously delivered by professional bodies. They are also places where research and development – with the emphasis on development – is often prioritised, and where innovation and job creation is expected and valued just as much as teaching or knowledge creation. Universities (and IoTs obviously) are even seen as places which should have immediate or at least short term impact on society through that mysterious process known as “engagement”.

The widening of the mission of higher education seems to have occurred not just because of the expectations and demands of our politicians, but also because the higher education system is now a highly competitive market and institutions will do anything to raise their profile. And just like corporations, growth is seen as an end in itself and rankings have become our stock market. So, whether it’s the introduction of gender neutral toilets, bans on disposable cups and plastic straws, the launching of the latest centre of excellence, or the latest very public embracing of a minority, institutions are in a rush to launch initiatives that will raise their brand profile. And these initiatives must inevitably reduce the core funding available for our key role, namely to educate undergraduates, both for their own good and for the good of the economy. So, if there’s a crisis in higher education, it’s one of identity.

There is a similar crisis of identity in the school system where the list of things that  should be taught grows daily. Apparently schools should teach everything from wellbeing and mental health to empathy to consent to nutrition and diet. It’s not for nothing that the term “therapeutic education” has been coined.

What we need is a real conversation around what we want our higher education institutions to be? Are they to be places of mass education but only for those who can afford it and to hell with those left behind (more on that in another blog post)? Are they to be hotspots of innovation and job creation? Are to be quango-like organisations charged with providing short-term fixes for society’s problems? Are they to be flag-bearers for Ireland Inc.? Or do we seriously need to start thinking about downsizing our higher education system or at least to think about what we need to prioritise.

I suggest a test. Give every university a no-strings-attached lump sum of say, €10m , and see what they spend it on. That would tell us a lot about priorities.

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